Inside Risk: Barbara Collazo, Southwest Gas
Learn how Southwest Gas' Administrator/Risk Management and Safety keeps the pressure under control.
By Eric Gilkey
Supplying natural gas to Nevada, Ariz., and parts of California, Southwest Gas has been in business since 1931. With 2,300 employees, hundreds of fleet vehicles driving millions of miles every year, and miles of high-pressure pipes that snake through residential neighborhoods filled with flammable materials, CLM Fellow Barbara Collazo has a daily challenge to keep a lid on it all.
Q. As I understand it, risk management found you, right?
A. Like a lot of my peers, I got into the business by accident. When I moved to Las Vegas, Nev., from New York City 18 years ago, I assumed that I would continue working as a paralegal. So when the Tropicana Hotel and Casino advertised for a paralegal, I applied and was hired the same day.
At that point, they told me that my title would be risk manager/paralegal. I said, “What’s a risk manager?” I had no clue what I had gotten myself into. Luckily, I received intensive training from the company’s general counsel and CFO, for which I am grateful. I soaked up as much knowledge and experience as I could, and I found I really enjoyed being hands-on and having a direct impact on changing processes or ways of thinking.
Q. How did your paralegal background help you in risk management?
A. I was a paralegal for a personal injury plaintiff’s firm when I left New York. Knowing how to handle the litigation aspect of it from this perspective helped me when I moved to the defense side. I always thought I would become an attorney eventually, but after getting my feet wet in risk management, I found it was more exciting and interesting to me. I like the responsibility of protecting my company and knowing that I was responsible for the safety of my employees and guests and the overall financials of the property. It only takes one major claim to cause a financial impact on a company, not to mention the effects of bad publicity.
Q. What is your approach to risk management?
A. It’s quite simple: Get out there and be curious. You have to understand the business, how the operation works, and how it affects the public and your employees. In the casino world, it’s like managing risks for a mini-city. You cannot sit at a desk, push papers, and run reports and assume you will do your job successfully. You have to go out and learn each department and understand their job functions, protocols, and procedures. In the gas industry, that means I can be at construction sites, interstate pipeline draw points, all variety of customer properties, and other unique settings. But it’s something I do so I can fully understand everyone’s role.
Q. What exposures do you face?
A. In public utilities, we are exposed to several types of risks: market, credit, operational, and business. I manage the operational risks, which includes thousands of miles of pipes filled with pressurized natural gas. However, we have an excellent safety approach and a department that adheres to regulatory rules. This is not the type of company where there is room for mistakes. In my day to day life, though, my greatest exposures include auto—because of our huge fleet of cars—and workers’ compensation and subrogation.
Q. Describe a typical subrogation claim.
A. Las Vegas is always under construction. Contractors are always putting up buildings and digging out pools. Everyone knows you have to “call before you dig,” regardless of whether it’s in your backyard or at a commercial site. Sometimes, however, contractors and homeowners skip a step or accidentally hit a line, so we have to pursue reimbursement not only for damage to the gas pipe, but also for labor and gas loss. You would be amazed at how expensive it can get when gas blows into the air for a large amount of time.
Q. Can you discuss a risk that you turned into an opportunity?
A. In the lawsuits I handled while working for casinos, oftentimes a claim would show me where procedures needed to change. For instance, as soon as an employee puts a hand on a person—even if it’s done in a non-aggressive manner, such as directing them to an exit or out of an area—it’s not unusual at all for that guest to claim battery. Those lawsuits helped me train the staff on how to get out of that reflexive habit. That’s as specific as I can get!